Monday, March 30, 2009

A Finnish Brutus?

Here, we see Eugen Schauman (1875-1904), a young Finnish civil servant who became famous for assassinating the hated Russian governor of Finland, Nikolai Bobrikov. On June 16, 1904, Schauman ran up to Bobrikov on the staircase of the Senate building and fired three times at him; the governor died some hours later in the hospital. After fatally wounding Bobrikov, Schauman shot himself twice, and died instantly.
The background for the murder was Finnish frustration at the increasingly oppressive Russian regime. Since 1809, when it was wrested from Sweden, Finland had been an autonomous duchy of the Russian Empire. The Tsars had ruled the country in their capacity as Grand Dukes of Finland, in accord with the country's traditional laws and customs, dating from the era of Swedish rule. Finland had enjoyed a wide measure of independence, with its own Diet of Four Estates (nobles, clergy, burghers, and peasants), its own Council of State, or Senate, and its own army, whose sole task was to defend Finland (rather than the Russian Empire as a whole). Since Alexander I, who had granted Finland this privileged status, each Tsar had sworn, upon his ascent to the throne, to maintain Finland's autonomy. As long as Russia respected this arrangement, the Finns were loyal and devoted subjects of the Tsars.This friendly relationship, however, collapsed, when Nicholas II, swayed by aggressively nationalistic Russian advisers, imposed a harsh program of Russification upon the Finns. The objective of the new policy was to abolish Finland's autonomy, reducing the Grand Duchy to a Russian province like any other. Similar policies were imposed upon other minorities within the Empire, such as the Poles, the Estonians, the Latvians, and the Lithuanians. Proponents of Russification feared the growth of Romantic Nationalism among these peoples, perceiving it as a threat to the unity of the Russian Empire. By attacking local cultures and institutions, they sought to destroy these minorities' sense of national identity. The effect, however, was merely to create hostility to the Russian regime.

In 1898, the Tsar appointed General Nikolai Bobrikov, an aggressive proponent of Russification, to the post of Governor-General of Finland. In 1899, the Tsar issued a decree, the so-called "February Manifesto," asserting, in violation of previous custom and usage, his right to rule Finland, through the Russian Council of State, without the consent of the Finnish Diet or Senate. The Finns, alarmed by the attack on their autonomy, addressed a nation-wide petition to the Tsar, asking him to rescind the February Manifesto. Unfortunately, he would not even receive the delegation, sent to St. Petersburg to present the petition. Another decree made Russian (rather than, as before, Swedish and Finnish) the main administrative language of Finland. In 1901, the previously independent Finnish army was assimilated into the Russian army, and made eligible for military service anywhere in the Empire. The Finns addressed another nation-wide protest to the Tsar. Again, he disregarded their petition. A well-organized passive resistance to Russification arose, led by distinguished Finnish jurists, who opposed the oppressive measures on constitutional grounds.  In response, in 1903, the Tsar granted Bobrikov dictatorial powers. The press was strictly censored, and a number of Bobrikov's opponents were exiled to Siberia. A crude and brutal man, Bobrikov threatened: "I have the guts not only to send these blackguards into exile, but to string them up as well." Understandably, the governor was bitterly hated by the Finns. 

During this period, an active resistance to Russification arose. Young Finnish patriots, inspired by the tyrannicides of classical antiquity, began to plot Bobrikov's assassination. Among these activists was the fiery young idealist, Eugen Schauman. The Schaumans, a distinguished, Swedish-speaking, noble family, had long been loyal to the Tsar; Eugen's father had been an officer in the Russian army, and Eugen himself had been born in the Ukraine, where his father was stationed. Eugen retained a sense of loyalty to the Tsar, even in planning the assassination of Bobrikov. He realized the gravity of his action, in killing the Tsar's representative, and, while viewing it as necessary, resolved to "expiate" his crime by taking his own life. 

Schauman left a letter to the Tsar in which he apologized for his action, presenting it as a desperate last resort in the the face of ever-increasing tyranny. To protect his family and friends from charges of conspiracy, Eugen stressed that he had acted alone. He implored that the Tsar take seriously the grievances of the Finns and other oppressed nationalities. Throughout, he maintained a respectful tone. (This attitude was typical of Finnish activists, who tended to view the monarch himself as good, but merely misled by evil advisers).
Eugen Schauman became a national hero. In large measure, this is due to the fact that he did not try to escape after murdering Bobrikov. Many Finns viewed his insistence on dying for his crime as a sign of a moral rigor which elevated him above common criminals. He was considered a noble tyrannicide, a sort of Finnish Brutus. Indeed, a plaque was erected in the Senate, at the site of the assassination, with the Latin inscription: Se pro patria dedit. 

While some Russians, in the aftermath of the murder, advocated ruthless reprisals against the Finns, the Tsar wisely decided upon a milder course. He appointed a new governor who was much less aggressive, and the Russians reconsidered the policy of conscripting Finns into the Imperial army. The 1905 revolution in Russia also served to relieve pressure on Finland. The harsh policy would later be re-introduced, but, for some time, the Tsar treated the Finns with greater moderation. 

Bobrikov's assassination is the most important political murder in modern Finnish history. I cannot endorse Schauman's action; tyrannicide, as it entails the use of force without legal authority, is always problematic, and Schauman's suicide raises a number of moral issues. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how the Finns viewed the event. It is a remarkable, tragic, and very dramatic episode. 

(For more information, see this article from 2004 on the centenary of Bobrikov's assassination, from Helsingin Sanomat; another article, debating the assassination, may be found here.)

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